member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Friday, December 2, 2011

Artnap V: Noir

Acrylic on panel.
“Amnesia is noir’s version of the common cold.”—Lee Server
This is part of a series of illustrations to go with a story of detection the lovely and talented Vesna is writing (you can see previous hints here ). In the story, the femme (a painter) has an internal conflict: she wants something, but she subconsciously subverts herself, which I think is a pretty common problem for people… In her case, there is a little issue of “forgetting,” which is the tool her subconscious uses. In that, the dark, labyrinthine qualities of the american noir cityscapes match the anfractuosity of the human brain, where what we want and what we think we want get twisted and confused and the bad “map” that creates for us runs us into walls and off of cliffs.
But not here. Here, for reasons that will become clear later, the artistic force of the painter/dreamer and the special vision of the detective will overcome the twisty darkness of the landscape in a way that the fatalism of classic noir film characters could not. The success has to do with seeing beyond (more than) what’s “there”; with the particular song of your heart and your willingness and ability to hear it and express it; and with a little bit of magic craziness (that’s the cat). Who is catching whom? I don’t know. But together, they will pull the light from behind the curtain….

For those of you who are even mildly interested in the cafe mentioned in the last post, the rules are slackening slightly. You would have 50 pages, give or take, and it doesn't have to be from one long work. As long as it's cohesive, it can be a collection of works.
Also, each round will be only one week, only one exchange. If you have any other suggestions, I'm game!

there's an excellent writer's game we've tried on Continuum-Art (link to the side) before that was fun, and it has been picking up steam on the red bubble site. Throughout the day, you add five words to the story. What's already there (109 pages!) is pretty hysterical, though it sort of lacks a plot :D
Here it is.
I recommend joining in.
That's it!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Call For Writers...

Vesna and I are trying an experiment.We are opening a group on the site RedBubble (you join that site just like you join any other, with a name and a password. There is no extra commitment there, but it has a "group" facility.) The group is called Cafe Le Chat Bleu. This little cafe is the beginning of an idea based on the French cabaret Le Chat Noir, which you can read about here. The experiment has two parts; one is a pretty big commitment, but only for a short period of time, whereas the other is quick and fun.

PART ONE: This group will be “open” only on a rotating basis. Each rotation will be 3 weeks long. To join, you submit 50 pages of a body of work and commit to actively reading (meaning with notes, suggestions,questions, useful comments) 10 pages per day of someone else’s work for five days, two days off, then 10 pages per day of a second person’s work, then two days off, then a third round. This arrangement does two things: each person gets three committed readers to their 50 pages, and also two days in between readers to make adjustments based on the previous reading. There is no group activity except during these rotations; whenever there are 9 participants, there will be a three-week round.

 PART TWO: We would like to try an experiment, if anyone is interested. This activity would be general admission: on Saturdays and/or Sundays, at a specific time, there could be a group skype open mic. On the one day, it would be poetry readings, on the other day, it would be comic monologues. You do not have to have 50 pages of any kind of material for this! I will post a sign-up sheet. When there are 9 (why not?) interested parties, the date will be set! Again, to participate, you do not have to be a member of this group.
I am curious how this part will change interactions over the internet :)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Now Showing: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Miraculous

“The Rapture,” by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
The story of the Archangel Raphael includes many adventures and extends to the sounding of the trumpet at the end of times and the beginnings of the day of Final Judgment. He is the Angel of Healing Waters, blowing along their surface to remove whatever suffering is within them. He is also the companion of Tobias, a young man betrothed to a woman so cursed her seven previous engagements ended in the death of the fiancé on the night of the wedding. He instructs Tobias to catch a fish from those waters over which he holds such sway, and he burns the heart and liver to drive away the demon that defeats her so, then uses the gallbladder to heal his father’s blindness.
This is an angel that sees all; you can see that much from the expression on his face. He sees the beginnings of our world in the chaos of the waters and the ends of them are carried in his breath, part of which is always held in waiting for God’s command to blow the final trumpet. In Clive’s above portrayal of Raphael, you can see the foliage embroidered on his jacket; the wings hold the waters of the earth and the waters of chaos, the feathers of birds, and the constellations of the night sky. He carries the universe and all its stories and maps—imagined, fantasized, and followed--on his back.
And from all that, he can give to us the gift of a second sight of sorts, and here he does. We are presented with a dizzying aerial view, a very full view of the earth. To Tobias, who is turned away from us, he gives some other, secret knowledge not imparted to us. And yet another view is present: the dog’s. Clive’s Jack, carried along in the fray, sees *us*.

The above painting was the result of a collaboration with the poet Damien Walford Davis.
The Rapture 

Earlier that day,
sensing something archangelic in the air, they cordoned off .

the cool piazza, locked the domed
basilica, closed the crossing .

to the island charnel house and church.
When the quattrocento stage was set, .

they sent the scapegoat out, the lure –
fishing-rod in hand, patched terrier .

to heel – and drew the blackout curtains
close. When he walked in later, .

brilliant as the fish he held, they gathered
round to touch his suit and sun-bleached .

hair: So did it speak? they asked, afraid;
What colour were its wings? And did it .

burn? No words, he said, or fire;
but from that height I saw beyond .

the valley to an exit road where drones
then jetplanes strafed a speeding column .

black, and men crept into holes, their
pounded flesh the many colours of his wings. .

Damian Walford Davis 2011

“Nest” by Clive Hicks-Jenkins I have written about Clive’s portrayals of St. Kevin and the Blackbird and St. Herve and the wolf before [here], but for his new show at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Wales beginning November 24, 2011, the evolution of his portrayal of these saints has been amazing, unfolding their stories in new directions and reigniting the potency of their meaning in our lives. This new collection of works seems to emphasize the idea of the entire world being present in the form of a Guardian, in this case a saint. In the story of St. Kevin, a bird comes to rest in his outstretched hand and stays to build its nest and lay its eggs and raise its young to first flight. The saint carries the life and safety of the forest in himself for the bird, and that incarnates as foliage on his flesh. After studying these works, you could enter the forest and see the larger shape of St. Kevin embracing you; as you peer up at the night sky, you could see, outside the smaller forms of the tales of Gemini, Cygnus, and Ursa Major, outside the patterns we use to map out our histories and our futures, the overarching story of Raphael and his healing waters. His wings alone carry all our stories of suffering and its defeat; they are larger than any of those stories—larger than all of them, even. He is himself giant and Romanesque, and the weight of all he carries and all he sees is present on his face. And it is therefore not ours to carry. That’s important. And it is the purpose, isn’t it, of those stories?
“Held,” by Clive Hicks-Jenkins This all-encompassing form is even more interesting when we think of the boxed-in sensation of the story of St. Kevin: he is trapped, in one spot, for the entire building of the nest, the gestation of the egg, and the birth and total dependence of the chick until it is able to leave on its own. The shape of Clive’s drawings underlines that sensation: St. Kevin barely fits the frame, his muscular torso contorts painfully. Yet he becomes the tree, the foliage sprouting across his chest, an impossible patience taking root within him—he creates the world the bird needs; he becomes it. Of tattoos, Clive notes: “…the irreversible is always alarming. But then life is irreversible, and that’s what makes it poignant, exciting, tragic…indeed just about anything you care to call it.” And in fact, the bird has already flown off in these new images, underlining the permanent, irreversible aspect of his decision: he is still rooted to the spot, growing into the landscape that chose him.

“Tobias and the Angel,” by Clive Hicks-Jenkins Clive writes: “The large chiaroscuro study of Tobias and the Angel (the detail above repays clicking on to see a magnified version) is progressing in rather unexpected ways. I’ve been exploring tone and texture to conjure angelic wings and garments that are a step onward from what I’ve attempted in the past. Something happened with the mark-making, transforming what I’d intended to be a tweed-textured jacket into a weave far stranger, almost suggesting a matador’s glittering ‘suit of lights’ oddly combined with the spotted markings of a big cat. This wasn’t at all the direction I’d planned, but now I’m hooked.” These marks then developed further, through a hearty back-and-forth with the readers of his artlog (a lively and energetically collaborative space in itself), to show constellations, smoke, plumage, and water. All this would later have to be translated to the color “version:” “Just the base colours of phthalocyanine blue and cobalt turquoise being worked in at the moment, after which I’ll start laying in the patterning. It’s a long job as the markings suggest turbulent waves, flow patterns, constellations and overlapping pinions, so there’s nothing for it but to keep my concentration fixed and to work work work…” [then] “Back to wings again today, and the task of suggesting colour, iridescence and texture. Water-flow, pinions, ruffles, scales and constellations of stars are a few of the ideas worked into these. Paint has been brushed, smeared, sanded back and scratched through with engraving needles. It’s a slow process but I’m getting there.” Though many of the works for this show are done in black conte over white Arches paper, the acrylic works that he has created show an amazing development of color. A palette already phenomenal—truly, the first thing to draw me into his works in the beginning—has become miraculous. The glowing honey color of Raphael’s jacket, the astonishing shimmer he has created in the wings, and the blues of St. Herve’s face are the openings to a new world in themselves. See the peace in Herve’s face tucked up trustingly against the wild snarl of the wolf. See again, that eye: the central eye of the piece, the wild wolf that sees you watching him, and is not moved.
“Hold,” by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Monday, November 14, 2011

Artnap IV: Selenomancy or Selenography


Acrylic on Panel
24in x 18in 
Selenography: Moon mapping. Selenomancy: Divination through study of the patterns and motions of the moon. See Ars Memoria for an exploration of the idea of recording (memory) and imagining (mapping the future) as two sides of the same coin…

In Embracing the Wide Sky, Daniel Tammet writes,
“As a child, I learned and remembered many things using my imagination. Role-playing is a very effective way to encode new information, because it requires careful thought that derives from self-reflection: ‘How do I do this?’ and ‘How would others do this?” are useful questions to ask yourself when learning something new.”
Click for larger view

Imagination and memory are always intertwined. By using this method, you are also saying: ‘if my life were this way/if I were this person, then x would affect me in that way.’ ‘If I had grown up this way, and become this person, I would behave this way in this situation.’ You act it out. And if you use that persona regularly in your memory-making and actions, then you effectively re-code your personal story, your personal memory, and become that person, thus also effectively changing your future. This is “magic:” you’ve changed the future by changing the past. This is the practice of Ars Memoria.
In Artnap, the story, the woman has an inner conflict that disturbs her sleep and interferes with her waking life, as well. Here, by the light of the moon, her dreaming mind grapples with the problem, drawing together images and associations until it creates a possible solution, in the form of the detective (who has been hired in the waking world), giving him his tools and his doorway (the time-space clock which dissolves into a ‘tunnel’ between worlds) and his task.
In Selenography/ Selenomancy (Part of the Artnap Series), she is ‘mapping’ the moon by drawing forms its craters and textured surface appear similar to—much like people “learned” the interrelations of the stars for directional purposes in the past by connecting the lines to form figures from their mythology, by giving the stars patterns and meanings already familiar to them. This is a form of memory, but also, there is some inexplicable synchronicity in her way of seeing at this moment and the world around her. Is she foreseeing his approach? Or is she drawing him to her?

Click for larger view

Friday, October 28, 2011

Little Blue Ship

This still isn't the final site, but it's completely revamped anyway. That's what happens when I try to 'edit.'
It's linked to the top right, if the link in the blog ends up not working.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Night Circus

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black- and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
The book opens thus, with the unannounced arrival of the circus. You enter the world as an astonished outsider, as part of the crowd anticipating its new role as audience, but you leave the story in quite a different way, more aware, more alive, a part of the circus: knowing that you have a role in keeping it alive.

This circus is open only at night.
ʻWhat kind of circus is only open at night?ʼ people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.

You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do.

It is Le Cirque des Reves, the Dream Circus, the Circus of Dreams.

Part of the story is an argument between two men about whether magic has to come naturally to someone, or whether it is a talent that can be taught. I will say only that this argument is made in the way arguments usually are, with a careless bluntness and disregard for “collateral damage.” The magic of the tale is in the fact that magic is something that can shred both sides of an argument and heal those wounded by the arguers; it is in the fact that magic is both a natural talent and something you, and I, can, through focus, learn to wield ourselves. We do it every day.

I have written often on this site about perspective, about how our beliefs shape what we see and block other things from our view. There have been mountains of experiments to explain this phenomenon that makes it impossible to rely on witness testimony, difficult to rely on our own memory, and uncertain about what we can truly claim to be reality. But what none of these experiments seem to focus on (please correct me if you know otherwise) is the best part: you donʼt have to live in a wretched world where the nightly news gives you heartburn and your interactions with others are tinged with distrust and fear. After all, you’re actively creating that world as you go along.

Tonight, the circus could arrive. You might notice people performing who are doing something you previously thought impossible. You might make some sort of decision in your own life based on that moment of surprise. You might feel that you are entering a dream,


You might, lucidly, decide to alter your surroundings, and your relationship with them.

In a dream, the monster chases you, and you are never fast enough. You turn and scream, “why?” as he rips you to shreds, and somewhere in the middle, you wake up, sweating and exhausted, and later you return to the same dream. This repetition means something. The meaning is not: Just like when Iʼm awake, when Iʼm dreaming, things go to hell. The dream is simply a short story encapsulating your beliefs. Once you know youʼre dreaming, without waking up, you decide that you would prefer a different relationship with this monster, you turn around, you invite it for tea. The next morning you wake up and go about your business, and that night, the circus arrives.


The next step, the step that takes focus, is realizing that you are always dreaming. Alter your surroundings slightly and change your relationship with them. The whole world will change accordingly. There are many world beliefs based on this. At the top of the blog, we have the famous quote from Remedios Varo about the placement of a pot of green paint and a pattern for making vests. There is Feng Shui, the art of arranging the items in your house in order to invite certain energies in. We have the placement of candles and images of saints, paired with patterns of word and rhythm, to request the intercession of particular powers in our affairs. We have habit.
Habit grinds certain neuro-chemical pathways into the folds of your brain; it creates patterns. Those patterns inhabit your motions; they inhabit your emotions; they control not just how you interpret what you see, but what you see. Ritual is an attempt at reversal of a particular harmful pattern. Ritual is a magical influence on the world around you. It has tangible effects.
ʻCelia,ʼ” he says without looking up at her, ʻwhy do we wind our watch?ʼ
ʻBecause everything requires energy,ʼ she recites obediently, eyes still focused on her hand. ʻWe must put effort and energy into anything we wish to change.ʼ

I would posit that the seeming lack of magic in the world is simply a matter of laziness.

An unwillingness to focus, to put that effort and energy into what we wish to change. Not necessarily a particularly negative form of laziness; often it’s only a lack of clear desires and goals. In many of the scientific experiments designed to test for the existence of ESP, the person tested looks at playing card after playing card, trying to guess the next one. Scientists have noted that performance decreases over time. There is a theory being posited, which makes sense to me, that these clean lab-tests, while the only method acceptable for “proving” the existence of something to a doubting public, are also the worst way to test for that existence: the knowledge sought is not anything the person being tested actually cares about. Who can focus in such a situation? What’s the next card? What difference does it make? Even if you’re “trying,” the core of your focus just can’t put itself in such an unimportant place. What goes through your head as you sit through one of those tests? Probably “what’s for dinner?” Borges once stated that the problem with scientific tests is that nothing in life occurs like a lab experiment; there are endless interactions in reality, all of which alter the impact of a particular (interactive) part. In this case, removing all subjective importance in the testing process also removes the impetus for focus, which removes the likelihood of any extra-sensory perception taking place. We’ve all heard stories of super-human strength in a person at the time of an emergency—mothers who can lift cars off of their children, that sort of thing. Lifting the car for the hell of it is another item entirely, and hugely unlikely.

As Kafka says in the quote above, “The nonexistent is that which we have not sufficiently desired.”

This story, The Night Circus, is almost a how-to. It is not just full of beautiful language, intense imagery,
and a spellbinding tale. It leads you from spectator to performer; it reminds you of your own abilities.

The reader gets brief descriptions of the circus from Friedrick Thiessen, a writer that is so enthralled with the circus that his writings about it in the papers gather a following whose members come to be called “Reveurs;” dreamers. They enter the black and white circus also dressed in black and white, with one scarlet addition, so as to not presume themselves on the same level as the performers. They follow the circus; they bring it deep into their own lives, and in their day long before overnight deliveries and well, well, before the internet, they forge lasting relationships across the world.
A few chapters in, you are drawn forward, from outsider to spectator:

Beyond the ticket booth the only way forward is through a heavy striped curtain. One by one each person passes through it, vanishing from sight.When it is your turn, you pull back the fabric and step forward, only to be engulfed by darkness as the curtain closes again.
After the above quote, in which you, from the audience, enter the circus, your eyes are closed by the darkness and given time to slowly adjust to some other way of seeing (which becomes stars lining a twisted hallway, through which you feel your way until you are set back out in the light, which is now blinding in its seeming intensity...), a new chapter opens in which we meet Bailey. Bailey is a young boy who discovers the circus as we do, with its unannounced arrival in his town. He goes; he is enthralled. But during the day, his irritating older sister dares him to enter the gates during the day.

He takes the dare.

And even though it seems that nothing much happens, something is begun. He goes back to his home, back to the regular family problems and overwhelming decisions of coming into adulthood, but something has changed. He has begun a process. It takes him a while. It takes him as long as it takes us, in fact; it takes him the length of the story. Iʼll come back to him.

We receive our pieces of the story from three sources: we watch the magicians Celia and Marco grow
into adulthood and begin their work in the circus, their story driving the stories of everyone else in the book--the whole world, in fact. We read the descriptions of Thiessen and join his fellow Reveurs in their astonishment which draws them inside to be more than mere spectators, though not exactly performers. And we watch Bailey grow from his position outside the gates, like us, move inside the gates, and become a force from within the Circus of Dreams itself. The book is magic, its story enthralling; the book is a guide.


There is so much that glows in the circus, from flames to lanterns to stars. I have
heard the expression ʻtrick of the lightʼ applied to sights within Le Cirque des Reves so
frequently that I sometimes suspect the entirety of the circus is itself a complex illusion
of illumination. --Friedrick Thiessen, 1894
A complex illusion of illumination. Like a holograph, creating a three-dimensional world out of light and air: this is what our brain does, by the way--it formulates some visual representation of a series of informational signals, and it convinces the rest of our senses of the details of that representation. If you donʼt like the style of your holograph- maker, create a new model. Put the spotlight on different parts of the stage, close your
eyes and inhale the scent of something else, focus your mind until you can feel a particular material, a flower petal, the skin of another, the texture of warm beach sand. Maybe youʼll open your eyes on the same office you closed your eyes in, but something will have changed. Underneath. Baileyʼs story is there to show us how.

On this evening, Mme. Padva wears a dress of black silk, hand embroidered with
intricate patterns of cherry blossoms, something like a kimono reincarnated as a gown.
Her silver hair is piled atop her head and held in place with a small jeweled black cage.
A choker of perfectly cut scarlet rubies circles her neck, putting forth a vague impression
of her throat having been slit. The overall effect is slightly morbid and incredibly elegant.

Mr. Ethan W. Barris is an engineer and architect of some renown, and the second of the
guests to arrive. He looks as though he has wandered into the wrong building and
would be more at home in an office or a bank with his timid manner and silver
spectacles, his hair carefully combed to disguise the fact that it is beginning to thin...
Do not think you must be born a magician, like Celia, or tutored from childhood, like Marco. Do not even think you must be a regal and aging theater personality, like Mademoiselle Padva. You, the anxious one from the back of the class, the one who wanders through life, shuffled from one position to another by “higher forces,” the one who doesnʼt see how you can have any impact on your own existence--or at least no more than it takes to keep your head barely above water--this is the call youʼve been waiting for. Get up. Focus on the thing that matters, but focus on it internally. I think the confusion about magic is, weʼre all trying to bend the spoon in front of us. As the small, wise child in the Matrix says, there is no spoon. You choose something fantastic, something that exists only in your own head. You focus on it, you develop it--

A small example, this is difficult--

Say you want to build a clock. That is your mental project. Why a clock? Why not? It is an image, an object that resonates with you. You are drawn in by the perfection of its pieces, by its rhythm, by the regular glimmer of the swinging pendulum, by the grace of the woodwork and the futuristic (even after all this time) aspect of its works. Gears that all come together to make a small dance, perhaps even with a special show at the turning of the hour, a small door opening, someone coming out for a dance or a song. Itʼs magical enough as it is. And it marks something so oddly unreal and yet so enormously controlling. Focus. You are creating something. Whatever you create matters. Where your focus is matters.

A man from the circus approaches Herr Thiessen the clockmaker asking him to create das Meisterwerk.
Money is no object. The only constraints are that it must be only in shades of grey from black to white, and that it must be Dreamlike. Her Thiessen, it must be emphasized, is a clock-maker. Not a magician. Not even, thus far, affiliated with a circus.
Herr Thiessen, loving details and loving challenge, puts his all into the project.
The finished clock is resplendent. At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black
clock with a white face and a silver pendulum. Well crafted, obviously, with intricately
carved woodwork edges and a perfectly painted face, but just a clock.
But that is before it is wound. Before it begins to tick, the pendulum swinging steadily
and evenly. Then, then it becomes something else.
The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and
then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite

Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As
though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.
All of this takes hours.

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where
the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically
turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey.

And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets
and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls
around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in
distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and miniscule curls
of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats
chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played.

At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the
juggler. Dressed in harlequin style with a grey mask, he juggles shiny silver balls that
correspond to each hour. As the clock chimes, another ball joins the rest until at
midnight he juggles twelve balls in a complex pattern.

After midnight the clock begins once more to fold in upon itself. The face lightens and
the clouds return. The number of juggled balls decreases until the juggler himself
vanishes. By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.

Sounds impossible? Here for your amazement is an actual clock, designed by Abū al-'Iz Ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī in the 1200s:

[The intricate action is described thus on wikipedia:

"The timing mechanism is based on a water-filled bucket hidden inside the elephant. In the bucket is a deep bowl floating in the water, but with a small hole in the centre. The bowl takes half an hour to fill through this hole. In the process of sinking, the bowl pulls a string attached to a see-saw mechanism in the tower on top of the elephant. This releases a ball that drops into the mouth of a Serpent, causing the serpent to tip forward, which pulls the sunken bowl out of the water via strings. At the same time, a system of strings causes a figure in the tower to raise either the left or right hand and the mahout (elephant driver at the front) to hit a drum. This indicates a half or full hour. Next the snake tips back. The cycle then repeats, as long as balls remain in the upper reservoir to power the emptying of the bowl...Another innovative feature of the clock was how it recorded the passage of temporal hours, which meant that the rate of flow had to be changed daily to match the uneven length of days throughout the year."]

No detail is too unimportant to receive your attention. You are sitting at your desk, which is a mess—a mess of items you have to deal with, which you would like to put off. Arrange it: put something to the right which represents things you would like drawn to you. Put something to the left which represents moments in which you have felt strongest and most able. Put something in the drawer that smells good, and smell it often. Put an unfinished piece of something which matters to you there also, and during idle moments or irritating moments, let your gaze float over to it, let your mind wonder how you might work on it next.

Bailey does something like this. He works on the family farm, and it is not his dream job. He spends a lot of time in the tree he has loved climbing since he was a child, the same tree he was sitting in (though on a branch below his sister) when she dared him to enter the circus after hours, often wishing he was a princess some knight would come and spirit away, even grumbling to himself about the absolute unfairness of the fact that all fairy tales only give such an opportunity to girls.

He tells himself that it is not a bad life. That there is nothing wrong with being a farmer.
But still, the discontent remains. Even the ground beneath his feet feels unsatisfying to his boots.
So he continues to escape to his tree.

To make the tree his own, he even goes so far as to move the old wooden box in which he keeps his most valued possessions from its standard hiding spot beneath a loose floorboard under his bed to a nook in the oak tree, a substantial indentation that is not quite a hole but secure enough to serve the purpose.

The box is fairly small, with tarnished brass hinges and clasps. It is wrapped in a scrap of burlap that does a fairly good job of keeping it protected from the elements, and it sits securely enough that it has not been dislodged by even the most resourceful squirrels.

Its contents include a chipped arrowhead he found in a field when he was five. A stone with a hole straight through it that is supposedly lucky. A black feather. A shiny rock that his mother said was some sort of quartz. A coin that was his first never-spent pocket money. The brown leather collar that belonged to the family dog who died when Bailey was nine. A solitary white glove that has gone rather grey from a combination of age and being kept in a small box with rocks [note: this glove was given to him when he snuck into the circus].

And several yellowed and folded pages filled with handwritten text.

After the circus departed, he wrote down every detail he could remember about it so it would not fade in his memory. The chocolate-covered popcorn. The tent full of people on raised circular platforms, performing tricks with bright white fire. The magical, transforming clock that sat across from the ticket booth, doing so much more than simply telling the time.

While he catalogued each element of the circus in shaky handwriting, he could not manage to record his encounter with the red-haired girl. He never told anyone about her. He looked for her at the circus during his two subsequent visits during proper nighttime hours, but he had not been able to find her.

Then the circus was gone, vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, like a fleeting dream.

 First of all, there is an action. He feels unsatisfied with the ground, so he climbs above it. He wants to leave the house he lives in—this is as specific as his desire gets—and so he moves his box of treasures from underneath the bed (the safe, the most inside room of the house, really), to the top of the tree, which stretches towards the sky. Up and out—that’s a good start, at least. Another action is the writing he does. He records every detail. Why? So he can call it up again. He can recreate the circus in his mind; he can smell it, see it; there are visual symbols to take him back, and there is the glove—a tactile proof of some other world, some other place, some other possibility. Also, there is a secret. All magic has a secret. The secret is his meeting with the girl.
’Secrets have power,’ Widget begins. ‘And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them. Writing them down is worse, because who can tell how many eyes might see them inscribed on paper, no matter how careful you might be with it…

This is, in part, why there is less magic in the world today. Magic is secret and secrets are magic, after all, and years upon years of teaching and sharing magic and worse. Writing it down in fancy books that get all dusty with age has lessened it, removed its power bit by bit…’

 But there’s another way that could go: a secret gets passed to you, and you make it your own. You learn a technique, add your secret sauce, and voila: new magic.

Clock by Eric Freitas

Clock by Eric Freitas

(“Growing relentlessly in the mind of Eric Freitas  lies a realm of dark mechanical curiosities and horological contradictions. In this world gears are harvested and mechanisms are alive with the organic repetitions of nature's machine. Balancing carefully between creative conception and logical execution, this world would slowly be brought to life. In 2004 Eric began to study the dying craft of clockmaking so that his ideas could be executed, and it would become apparent that even an instrument as logical and precise as a clock could be compromised by ungoverned subconscious thought.”—from his website)

There is much that goes on in this novel, and I haven’t even touched on the masterfully written story of a great love between two magicians, Celia and Marco. I have not described a single tent in the immense maze of mysterious circus tents, a single flavor of the amazing dinner-parties thrown by the circus proprietor. Or the way that Bailey comes in to his own. Read this book.

Note: The magnificence of clockworks extended into the creation of automata that did not “bother” with marking time. Tiny humans played chess; music boxes opened to reveal dancers inside. The wondrous possibilities of gears extended to the stage and expanded in scope via magicians. Below is one of the more famous magic pieces performed by Robert Houdin, who was a pioneer of such automata use. (The Night Circus does not go in this direction, but the story of the circus clock leads me there in my own twisted mind .) It was called “The Marvelous Orange Tree" and in the movie “The Illusionist,” Edward Norton performs a variation of it. If you can get through the theatrics of the first 2 or 3 minutes, you will reach the performance of the orange tree, which is truly amazing. I don’t want to know how it works… After all, does it matter? He paid attention to the details, and he created magic.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Artnap Project

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

So, although my father often wanders around the house reciting bits of the Jabberwocky, and although I’m mildly obsessed with other works of Lewis Carroll, this opening gambit pretty much shut my brain down, and I never really took to the Jabberwocky as anything more than the fantastic sound it makes when bellowed aloud. Then I came across this word in The Daily Figaro: Portmanteau.
“Originally, a portmanteau carried a nobleman’s luggage.  Later the word referred to a bag slung onto a horse, which evolved into a suitcase that opens like a book.  Then Lewis Carroll analogized it.  In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains that slithy combines lithe and slimy, mimsy hybridizes miserable and flimsy, and so on.  ‘You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.””

Carroll explained it a bit more in his own introduction to The Hunting of the Snark:
“Humpty Dumpty's theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all. For instance, take the two words "fuming" and "furious". Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first ... if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious".”

There are plenty of portmanteaus in everyday speech, like smog: a mix of smoke and fog. Or motel: motor and hotel. Or brunch: breakfast and lunch.  Everyone remembers “Brangelina?”
A more interesting one is “flabbergast,” the history of which I found on

“Dating to the 18th century and most likely a combination of "flabby" or "flap" and "aghast," the logic underlying "flabbergast," meaning "extremely frightened or surprised," is a bit obscure. My guess is that "flabbergast" was originally intended to conjure up visions of someone so terrified or astonished that they trembled like a bowl of Jell-O. "Flabby," incidentally, is closely related to the old word "flappy" -- to say someone is flabby is to say that they "flap" when they move, which is enough to send anyone to the gym.”

Vesna and I have been on a vocabulary binge, lately, for a project I won’t go into here, and one of the products of it is the following portmanteau:
Artnapping: Art + nap (sleep) + nap (nab/ kidnap). The above black ink drawing was the first image to flesh out the ideas of the story (story to come). Then I decided to finally try my hand at maquettes, those moveable models that Clive Hicks-Jenkins uses in his studio that I love so much:

(Vesna's completed story will go here:    SOON  )

And finally, I worked my way towards this painting:

Capture By Tango
The clock is run by the sign of Pisces, and the juggler tells you the time by the number of glowing orbs he juggles (a concept taken from The Night Circus; more on that amazing book coming soon). If you click the link for the painting, you will see that there are two other female dancers disappearing and reappearing amongst the pillars. The detective has used his trusty phonograph (a weapon much more useful, I find, than the usual detective tool) to descend into the dream and capture the correct dreamer.

Friday, September 30, 2011


“The Beaver brought paper, portfolio, pens,
And ink in unfailing supplies:
While strange creepy creatures came out of their dens,
And watched with wondering eyes.”

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

Murder in the Court of the Katydid King
by Richard A. Kirk

(Discovered via Phantasmaphile)

Richard A. Kirk’s work will be shown (alongside the work of several other artists) in “Cute and Creepy,” at the Museum of Fine Arts of Florida State University, from October 13th to November 20th. All artwork in this post is his.

The show is described as a show of works combining the Pop Surreal style with an element of the grotesque, “a dissonance of simultaneous attraction and revulsion” (Samantha Levin).

Grotesque being a fascinating word, I will go into it a little further, here. It is a word that has been used to describe the writings of Kafka and O’Connor, and the paintings of Bosch, Goya, and Otto Dix. Nancy Hightower, who teaches Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says: “What I admire very much about the theory is that it has to play by certain ‘rules’--i.e. just because something is strange and weird, it’s not necessarily grotesque, not in the sense that I teach it. The grotesque is an operation, a form of persuasion that artists and writers use to create a paradigm shift in the viewer. And to me, this shift must always move in the direction of redemption, i.e. in making us a kinder, more loving world.”

By Richard A. Kirk

Hightower’s concept of the grotesque appeals to me in several ways. I am always left cold by art that is merely gross and strange, or art that seems to do nothing but show the gory nature of our society and the painful places we have come to. Art that “mirrors” our daily violence instead of breaking a window or a door out into something better--a surprise, a new idea. A paradigm shift in the direction of redemption--that is something worth our focus.

I have heard this idea before, but never been fully convinced that terrifying aspects really add to the experience of a paradigm shift. Or, I’ve never been too inclined to be fully convinced of it. Her explanation of how the process applies in the works of the “Cute and Creepy” show, though, makes sense: she suggests that by having both humor and horror, both cute and creepy, in front of us, we are moved to a “liminal,” an in-between state, that is, a state where our most solid conceptual and perceptual theories become ungrounded, and a doorway we normally would have been blind to might be noticed. Even opened.

An example is Richard A. Kirk’s “INX”:
The title is a portmanteau, which he unpacks: “The artist and sphinx are combined in a form that suggests a question mark and therefore a riddle. The artist’s hands are brushes, suggesting that he has drawn himself into existence in an effort to find meaning and truth.”
There is a thought: we are all drawing ourselves into existence. An artist (not necessarily a visual artist, either) though, takes that task seriously. He/she is not just throwing together homework at the last minute or riding the treadmill of the punch-clock. Focus. Attention to questions, to riddles. Attempts at teasing them into worlds and possibilities. Kirk is an artist that has honed the fine art of focus: one square inch of an ink and silverpoint drawing will take him about an hour.
There are a lot of things that are scary (thus the creepy part) of not knowing exactly where you’re going. For example, where’s the artist’s next meal coming from? Kirk notes on his (link) webpage that those lured into mysterious other worlds often find trouble.

Promise of the Cuckoo
by Richard A. Kirk
In her essay in the catalogue for the exhibition, Hightower states, “Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that as a “construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals’ that which warns…like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”. What sets up this kind of fulcrum is society itself: “The too-precise laws of nature as set forth by science are gleefully violated in the freakish compilation of the monster's body. A mixed category, the monster resists any classification built on hierarchy or a merely binary opposition, demanding instead a ‘system’ allowing polyphony, mixed response (difference in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and resistance to integration…”. These kinds of juxtapositions are what form the definition of the grotesque.”

Resistance to integration-- think about a monster in a dream. It is a patchwork of things you are anxious about and afraid of, and things you want to do and the inkling of danger that comes when you try to push forward in your life into something new. Because something new is something unknown, and we just heard Kirk’s warning, an echo of many childhood tales, about what can happen when you follow the strange creature into a mysterious world. That monster is necessary, it’s there to show us how all those things patch together, it’s there not allowing them to blend, so that you can see the distinct pieces, pull it apart, lose your fear, and move forward. Paradigm shift. In studying that monster, you realize why you’re treading water, why you seemingly aren’t able to do the things you think you want to do. Don’t flinch when he breathes fire. Just keep picking at his clothes. It’s only a dream.

In an interview with the creator of Phantasmaphile, Kirk states: “I am interested in liminal things; protean forms.  The generation of ideas is both conscious and unconscious.  I draw things that I enjoy looking at like birds, insects, trees and books.  Over time, I have developed a kind of personal iconography. I try to develop work that tells a story, perhaps not the same story for everyone, but also leaves many questions unanswered.  I love mystery in a work of art. Have you read Little, Big by John Crowley?  The idea of worlds within worlds interests me very much, like the house Edgewood in the book; a house that inside is many houses.”

The Lost Machine
by Richard A. Kirk

For example, there is the above image. Here is a bird that is mechanical. Someone has to wind it Yet, something else is happening. It eats eggs? Its own young? Or is it caring for its young, carrying it to a safe place? And doesn’t either case make it also alive? Are we the same way, half-wound (by parents, by society, by some god or gods) and half full of our own intentions? Or is this an image that suggests that such a thing as creating our own young is a habit: wind up the human, push it through adolescence (hopefully), toss it out of the nest, and it produces an egg. Are we purely mechanical beings?
inside this image is a novella. So, a story within a story--one with mechanical men, even. Or a series of questions within a series of questions. And it is some sort of mystery novella, to boot, which puts it right up my alley (to be reviewed soon?).

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Vesna and the Pink Panther

Our co-hort in all things fabulous, Vesna, has a two-page spread of poetry in the September, 2011 issue of Pink Panther Magazine. You can see the entire magazine here with hyperlinks or you can buy a print copy here.

The amazing cover, a painting by Janelle McKain:

Vesna's pages: which you will see her lovely daughter Mila, and several of her poems, including this jewel:

Cogito ergo sum
A thought
Like a fish
Promising it will grant me 3
once I hold it
And I am trying to catch it
Swimming in my own anatomy
Trying to draw a map
Lost in the labyrinth of my own
Each left and right turn
has a “because”
But most of all
I really enjoy
Feeling lost.


Congratulations!! :)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Five Keys

I finally got my hands on a copy of the gorgeous book “The Five Keys to the Secret World of Remedios Varo.”

One of the things I have always liked about Remedios Varo’s work is the mysterious yet cohesive narrative present in her images. The Surrealist Movement was full of heady ideas and the study of dreams and alchemical traditions and psychology, but in general, its artists rather strictly adhered to a tradition of uncensored, automatic work: they painted dreams and bizarre pairings but made no effort to pull them together into some semblance of order.  While Varo utilized many surrealist techniques, such as decalcomania, and firmly embedded her images in dreamy and surreal atmospheres, the paintings she presented in the last, explosively productive years of her life show a definite narrative purpose.  In her essay In Search of the Miraculous, Tere Arcq meticulously outlines the connection Varo had made with the Russian mystic Gurdjieff’s group. She asks,

“What spurred her to distance herself from the automatist experimentation evident in her early works? One possible reason may lie in how Gurdjieff conceived of art. The Russian suggested that there were two kinds of art: objective and subjective. In objective art, the artist creates, but not so in subjective art: ‘With him ‘it is created’[…]this is where the whole difference lies.’ And this difference also lies at the heart of Gurdjieffian thought: man is a machine unable to do anything, to have control over his life and his fate—things simply happen to him. Only when he begins to do work on himself can man cease to be a machine and attain awareness. The subjective artist is a man-machine—an automaton that is incapable of doing anything…”

Towards the Happiness of Women

In the image above, the women are almost completely machine. They move about on wheels instead of feet, which in her own visual vocabulary would make them almost primates:

IMAGE:  “Homo Rodans,” Varo’s “archeological discovery” built from  the bones of fish and poultry, for which she produce an accompanying study in stuffy academic language.

Tiny wings direct their movement.  Their source of happiness is the shop where they can receive updated parts:

Towards the Happiness of Women,  detail from book
NOTE: images marked "from the book" can be seen at a much bigger size. 

Arcq says, “To Gurdjieff, the automaton is an inferior being, a potential being that requires intense inner work to achieve a state of higher consciousness. Remedios Varo moved away from automatism because she was no longer an automaton…”

Where her Surrealist counterparts were focusing on the nightmarish visions that the events of the wars around them and the behaviors of the people involved might easily provoke, Varo was moving towards something else. Though she, too, suffered the dangers and upheavals of war—the Spanish Revolution and the armies of Hitler—she seemed to be approaching something better rather than running away. She arrived at her last home, in Mexico, and put her mind to study and creation, joining groups founded by the Russian mystics Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, analyzing her dreams and concocting recipes to control them with her friend Carrington, and painting.

Again from Arcq: “The Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky stated that art is a means of knowledge and that by devoting himself to creation, the artist opens his mind to a multiplicity of possibilities, and is able to reveal enigmas and lead humankind toward the sphere of the unknown…so that his work might become the vehicle for the revelation of a higher reality.”

This is the purpose, to me, of art—of all creativity: not to mirror our worst side, to show us the beasts within and the darkness we are capable of—all of that is clear as day, in front of us, and is already presented to us on the television anyway. The purpose is to create a door in the wall, or at least a clerestory, some way for those of us in the gutter, as Wilde so famously said, to gaze upon the stars.
We contain the entire universe, all of its multiple versions, within us,

Center of the Universe

and to choose to enact the weakest, basest narrative is mindless, incomprehensible.
In the painting below, “The Red Weaver,” the eponymous weaver is fading into shadow, melting into the wall. In the background, two old skins hang from the ceiling and one from the wall. The red blood of life pulses through the weave of her creation as it lifts itself towards the window and out of the cramped room to sail through the sky.

Oppose this with the messy machinations of the puppets of astrological forces here:

Sympathy, from the web

or the repetitive, plodding (mechanical) movements those forces compel here:

In her essay, "Dreams of Alchemy," Fariba Bogzaran brings all of this together, saying :
"Although Remedios Varo was not interested in illustrating her dreams as some Surrealists did, many of her paintings suggest a complex 'dream-like' but conscious narrative with a wide range of possibilities, as is often experienced in lucid dreams where the dreamer gains awareness that he or she is dreaming and becomes a co-creator with the unconscious world (162)."

Therein lies the distinction: she is not an automaton, calling upon the knowledge of the subconscious and then doing no more than recording its suggestions. She has woken inside the dream, realized it is *a* dream, and reached out with her fingers to nudge certain details into place, to improve it. When Engel talks of her paintings, he also compares them to dreams: "In her best paintings, each of these locales convinces us that it is the one and only center of the universe, just as a compelling dream must depict not merely a reality but reality itself."

Embroidering the Earth's Mantel, from the book
cropped to avoid book crease

First, by her meticulous attention to detail, and through the use of surrealist techniques such as decalcomania, which allow for textures unattainable with a brush, she creates a world outside the normal realm of possibility, and makes it real, makes it convincing.

IMAGE: (the clouds of the sky are created using a technique called decalcomania, which involves pressing the paint between two sheets of paper and pressing the resulting pattern onto the canvas.)

IMAGE: (the tiny world looks just like ours, only now we see it from a "fourth" dimension, with its creators present. The curvature of the earth and the folds of mountains makes sense in this view)

Then, she subverts that "reality," with even further detail:

Detail from Embroidering the Earth's Mantel, from the book

The creators, Catholic school-girls trapped in a tower under the watchful and all-powerful gaze of the matron, endlessly weave a world they are never able to partake in. All the beautiful water! The oceans, the mountains! Secretly, the girl to the left has found a way out: if she is truly making this world, then how could she not? She creates a lover, and she plots their escape. Any minute now, they will solidify, and, reaching the earth below, be free. When we look at the world around us, every detail seems so firm, so real, and so the reality we believe we are seeing seems objective, permanent, unchangeable. But the same is true in a dream, until we wake from it. With this small detail, Varo shows us, that through a creative act (no matter how tiny), we can alter reality in massive ways; this idea is one of the main building blocks of all her work.


Another Gurdjieffan theme that finds life in Varo's paintings is again an idea purported by the new physics, and one that also fits in neatly with the idea of the entire world as a dream (one from which we don't particularly want to wake up, but in which we want to become aware): that is the idea that everything is alive.  In the 1950s, a painter named Christopher Fremantle led lessons in Gurdjieff's teaching in Varo's neighborhood in Mexico. One experiment he liked them to practice weekly involved both professional artists and amateurs to take up their drawing pencils and paints and create. In an interview with Lillian Firestone, one of the group's members, Arcq learned about these sessions:  "The study focused on observation: they would observe an object for a lengthy period, and then capture the impressions that the object in question had caused in them. 'No inanimate object was seen to be completely devoid of movement[...] We saw the 'livingness' even of rocks[...] Even a perfectly round orange was revealed as a complex kingdom of curves and whorls.'"

Visit to the Past (from book)

There are several things to think about in the above image. There is the life present in things, for example, that we see peeling itself out of the table, the chair-back, the walls, the sprouting carpet, and the dancing chair. The first thing the face emerging from the table makes me think of is the idea that the atoms that make up my body are constantly interchanging with those of everything around me, for example the table I am sitting. And if I sit at that table for 10-12 hours every day for 40 years, how much of that table has memories from my own existence inside it? Could anyone ever see those memories? Could anyone ever interact with them? Could they influence the behavior of the next person sitting at that desk? Could that person learn from my mistakes and gain strength from my strengths?

Recently, I ran across the word "spectrality," in an essay about De Chirico, Magritte, Balthus and Ernst from the catalogue of the 2010 show at the Palazzo Strozzi involving the works of all four. In talking about De Chirico and Ernst, the author writes, "In Ernst's view, the painter's job is to record what he 'sees' with his mind's eye, allowing his own will to interfere as little as possible. He inherited De Chirico's belief in the independent life of matter, taking the concept of 'spectrality'--in which concrete elements take on unexpected meanings--to new heights through his use of collage... The trends in European painting between World War I and the 1930s that opted for a realism capable of hinting at a 'second life' in things that transcended their purely visible aspect, were undeniably influenced by De Chirico's metaphysical art."

A concrete element-- for example, the table in "Visit to the Past," now takes on another meaning: that of the past. The table is not merely furniture; it is the carrier of memories, it is part of a room that has had life in it before the entrance of this new woman, it was once a central part of someone else's life in that room. Beyond that, it was once a collection of chunks of wood that a carpenter smoothed into planks, sealed against damage. and fixed into its present shape. It contains the love of that carpenter's hands, love that developed out of a life to lead those hands to work with wood. Before that, it was a tree, or several trees, and it lived in a forest, *it lived* amongst other trees and birds and animals, and if you lay your head on that table, ear down, you can hear the stream trickling over rocks in the distance.  In this painting, all those things, all the lives that were ever connected in some way with that table, are here now. Around the legs of the table, grass and flowers grow again. A breeze blows, and a branch in the shape of a chair bobs and tilts.

That is the Surrealist definition of 'spectrality,' but in our everyday world, offers another--it is the noun form of the adjective 'spectral,': of, having the nature of, or like a specter; phantom; ghostly. This definition merges two of the ideas in this drawing: the ghost of the past and the thin, illusory (phantom) sheen of image that "reality" really is.

 Harmony (from web)

Detail of Harmony (from book)

Engel describes the above painting: “In this complex and moving work, the forces of order (mathematical formulas, perfect geometric solids, the logic of musical theory) find themselves fiercely at odds with the chaotic disintegration of the room itself: the floor tiles buckle up from sprouting weeds, a bird has constructed a nest in the fabric of a chair, the scientist’s drawers and trunk are overflowing with debris, and, of course, the walls themselves are decomposing.” This conflict is there because, as we look around us, we are placing an order woven simply by faith and perspective as only a thin layer, a holograph, over the chaos of teeming atoms—parallel realities, endless possibilities.  Your atoms, which are constantly interchanging with the atoms of the desk in front of you, the keyboard, the doorknobs, the grain of the wood flooring, the carpet fibers; there is no real distinction. There is no real reason you couldn't part the walls and pass through to the other side.

There is much, much more in this book. And the paintings are large, clear, and in beautiful color, with details pulled out and magnified. There are sketches, and images of hand-written dream-creating recipes, and the examples of her work range from her beginning Surrealist works in Europe to the unique style she created once she'd settled in Mexico. There are essays focusing on the architecture in her work, on the effect of dreams on her work, on the impact of all the time in cafes working on exquisite corpses, and on the beliefs of Gurdjieff's students and their expression in her work. It is gorgeous, a must-have.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Happy Birthday

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”—Borges, in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors.”

Borges, photo by Paola Agosti

Today is the 112th birthday of Jorge Luis Borges. He grew up in a house of books, played with his sister and their shared imaginary friends in the hallways of libraries and pathways of gardens, and spoke Spanish and English so interchangeably that he recalls being well-along in childhood before he understood that they were separate languages. ( He grew up in Argentina, Switzerland, and Spain, picking up more languages along the way. His first shy foray into the publishing world of poetry was in 1923, with a cover bearing a woodcut made by his sister Norah and the project financed by his father. And he gave it away “often surreptitiously, such as slipping copies into the pockets of editor’s overcoats!” (Ibid). By the 1930s, he was gaining recognition as a writer, but the economy was such that he needed a more dependable income, and so he began nine years of painful drudgery in a library, surrounded by colleagues with no interest in the books they catalogued.
Everything changed in 1938. His father died, and he himself hovered in a liminal world of fevered nightmare, wounded, infected, and hallucinating in the hospital for a month. He awoke terrified that this illness would have destroyed his creativity, and that terror drove him to focus and to take chances which soon resulted in Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote and Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

(Don Quixote, his image a map of his life, dreams, and memories, both completely false and imaginatively edited. Painting by Octavio Ocampo.)

He also wrote political essays, which landed him a promotion when Juan Peron rose to power: Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Public Markets.” He deferred, commenting that “dictatorships foment subservience, dictatorships foment cruelty; even more abominable is the fact that they foment stupidity. To fight against those sad monotonies is one of the many duties of writers.” (Ibid).
Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a fantastic example of how.

“For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or (more precisely) a sophism.”

In the first part of this story, the narrator stumbles upon his first hint of the existence of Uqbar, a country to whom 4 pages in some exemplars of a particular encyclopedia are given, though no other proof of its presence in the world seems obtainable. He describes the confusion created by this discovery, as he searches through atlases, news articles and other encyclopedias for any mention of the land named Uqbar. And he gives the highlights of what he learns from those four strange, solitary pages.

“The section on Language and Literature was brief. Only one trait is worthy of recollection: it noted that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy and that its epics and legends never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön...”

In the second part, the narrator discovers, entirely by chance, a copy of the Hlaer to Jangr volume of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön:

“Two years before I had discovered, in a volume of a certain pirated encyclopedia, a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.”

He, along with others who have now stumbled upon these oddities, are convinced that no less than a team of “tlönistas” must be out there, creating the history, geography, poetry, art, architecture, mathematics, etc of this imaginary planet—one person would not suffice. The breadth of “knowledge” about the place is too much.

He says: “At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, and irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally.”

He then goes on to describe the language of the southern hemisphere of Tlön and extends directly from that language to everything else about it: existence upon it, the belief systems, the essence of its people:

“The nations of this planet are congenitally idealist. Their language and the derivations of their language - religion, letters, metaphysics [emphasis mine]- all presuppose idealism. The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the "present" languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." "The moon rose above the river" is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."”

What does this mean? What does it mean to say that there are no nouns, that everything is a verb? We can understand, if we speak this way, that the entire world is an act of creation, that we are not describing, but creating, that nothing simply is, it lives. What is a rock? To us, it is a thing. But if it can be described only using verbs, then we must understand that it exists for a purpose; it has its own existence, and without that purpose, it would not be. This makes me think of lucid dreaming, and—wait for it—Ars Memoria. If you were to fully analyze a scene in a dream, you would be thinking of the symbolic value of each object in the room or the landscape—the table, the chairs, the stain on the wall, the rock beside the path you were taking that you barely looked at. Why are those things there, in the dream? Your mind created them—each item, each speck on each item was created, intentionally. (The pipe is not just a pipe.) And if we were to say that the same is true of everything we see when waking? That would be part of the practice of Ars Memoria: to see the many possible meanings and links from each object and event to another, in order to better understand everything (thus memory is no issue) and eventually, to be able to affect those things through the mind. Don’t like the rock? The rock disappears. Poof.

The language of the northern hemisphere is different. There are only monosyllabic adjectives there, and a thing or an event is “named” by some combination of those adjectives. This means, in reality, that most things and events can only be described in a particular way once—thus, every moment of life is its own. There’s no such thing as a sunset, there is only the particular one that you are describing:

“There are objects composed of two terms, one of visual and another of auditory character: the color of the rising sun and the faraway cry of a bird. There are objects of many terms: the sun and the water on a swimmer's chest, the vague tremulous rose color we see with our eyes closed, the sensation of being carried along by a river and also by sleep. These second-degree objects can be combined with others; through the use of certain abbreviations, the process is practically infinite. There are famous poems made up of one enormous word. This word forms a poetic object created by the author.”

And then, Borges drops this bomb: “They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect.” This subordination is exactly what he has been describing. It is not merely a linguistic subordination of all words to the category “verb.” It is the subordination of every thought to that system of linguistic delivery. And stop for a moment to think about what this means if one spends all day making simplistic, vague sentences composed of infantile vocabulary, especially in the service of spreading scandals so common that their descriptions are merely fill-in-the-name-of-the-scandalizer forms.

Back to the story, we can see how language then affects math, which is still yet an expression of their beliefs: “maintain that the operation of counting modifies the quantities and converts them from indefinite into definite sums. The fact that several individuals who count the same quantity would obtain the same result is, for the psychologists, an example of association of ideas or of a good exercise of memory, “ and also: “The basis of visual geometry is the surface, not the point. This geometry disregards parallel lines and declares that man in his movement modifies the forms which surround him.”

Let’s hope so. But more than hoping, let us be purposeful in our movements.

Then there is a postscript. The narrator uneasily recounts the events that have occurred more recently and the massive changes they have brought to society. The action really begins when some princess receives an expected package, and one of the items inside is an unknown element: a compass, and on it is inscribed something in a language of Tlön. “Such was the first intrusion of this fantastic world into the world of reality.”

Suddenly, the world is inundated with information from this once-unreal planet. And then…:

“Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order - dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism - was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?”

It isn’t that this is a foreign activity to us. It isn’t foreign at all. Not just the terrifying sweep of Nazism, but the very vast and detailed world which we claim to see in front of us right this minute could be no more than a dream, a perception, an organization of countless, teeming atoms into shapes and acts based on nothing more than a single (yet complex) belief--that Central Image I keep rambling about here. So, if the nightly news makes you sick to your stomach, maybe…
We could write another story. Draw a different picture.

The story is free to read and extremely highly recommended and linked HERE (English is on one side and Spanish is on the other; this is where I got the English quoted above.)